Arlett Created a Big Buzz
The basic story is familiar in baseball history: A hulking, strong-armed young pitcher overwhelms hitters for a few years, winning nearly 100 games before moving to the outfield. There he becomes an astounding slugger, the most feared hitter in the league for the rest of the decade, setting records for career home runs and RBI that most likely will never be broken.
The catch is that I’m not talking about Babe Ruth. I’m talking about Russell Loris Arlett, the scourge of the Pacific Coast League in the 1920s, a man whose nickname of “Buzz” was a shortened version of “Human Buzz Saw” that celebrated his methodical shredding of opposing pitchers. In 1984, with good reason, SABR named Arlett the best minor league player ever.
Born in Elmhurst, Calif., near Oakland, in 1899, Arlett was the youngest of four brothers. The eldest, Alexander (“Pop”), played for the PCL’s Oakland Oaks, and Russell followed him to spring training in 1918. With little more than a fastball, the right-hander tried out and made the team. But he went just 4-9 in 21 games and wasn’t impressive at the plate, batting .211 with one home run.
That winter, determined to succeed, he mastered the spitball and won 95 games over the next four seasons. His best year was 1920, when he went 29-17 with a 2.86 ERA. That prompted the Detroit Tigers to pursue him until they found out he threw the spitter, soon to be outlawed. He was praised for his nimble fielding, his fastball, and his pitching smarts. In fact, his only weakness seemed to be hitting.
The Detroit Tigers looked at Arlett, but because one of his primary pitches — the spitball — was outlawed in 1920, they did not consider him a prospect. Though a “grandfather clause” protected established pitchers, Arlett would only be able to throw the pitch in the minors; he would not be allowed to use it in the majors.
However, the factor that later helped Arlett compile huge offensive numbers first doomed his promising pitching career — namely, the lengthy PCL season (180 to 200 games). From 1919 to 1922, he averaged 53 games and 367 innings a year. In 1920, as a 20-year-old, he led the league with those 29 wins and 427 innings pitched. By the time he turned 24, he had logged 1,621 innings as a professional, a sure formula for a ruined arm.
Twenty-five wins and a 2.77 ERA in 374 innings in 1922 finished him as a full-time pitcher, but he had seen it coming. Determined to excel, he learned to bat left-handed, eventually becoming, according to Casey Stengel, second only to Mickey Mantle as a switch-hitting slugger. He was so comfortable batting left-handed that in one of his most celebrated feats, he won a key game late in the 1924 pennant race by belting a grand slam off a southpaw.
When his innings dropped to 125 in 1923 and he won just four games, he started playing the outfield between starts and posted a .330 average with 19 home runs and 101 RBI. He didn’t have another season with such modest production in the minor leagues until he was 37 years old. Like Ruth, he would occasionally pitch a game for publicity or fun, but nobody cared that he recorded only four wins after 1923, finishing with 107.
Have you ever studied Ruth’s seasonal statistics in the 1920s? All you can do is gawk. Wherever you look, the numbers are unfathomably huge. Think about the hoopla today when any player approaches this or that Ruthian number for one season and extrapolate from there to glimpse the impact of his prodigious batting prowess over a decade.
That’s what I experienced when I first saw Arlett’s raw numbers with the Oaks from 1924 to 1930. The long PCL season did inflate the numbers; Arlett played 186 games per season over those seven years. Here are the other seasonal averages: 237 hits, 55 doubles, 10 triples, 31 home runs, 143 RBI, and 133 runs scored. And try on these batting averages for size: .328, .344, .382, .351, .365, .374, and .361.
Why didn’t the major leagues come knocking? They did, but the asking price was too steep, reportedly as high as $100,000. As the years and the numbers accumulated, Arlett supposedly grew bitter and disillusioned, but if so you couldn’t tell it by his performance. His best season was 1929, with career highs of 270 hits, 70 doubles, 146 runs, and 189 RBI, along with 39 home runs, his best figure at an Oakland ballpark that discouraged most sluggers. He remained the franchise’s most popular player, known for his carefree manner, good cheer and generosity.
Midway through 1930, the Brooklyn Robins needed an outfielder, and approached the Oakland owner about Arlett, then 31. As negotiations continued, fate intervened. Relaxing on the bench during a rare night off, he was ejected by plate umpire Chet Chadbourne, who accused him of excessive heckling. The argument continued after the game with players getting between Arlett and Chadbourne, who reached over the tangle of limbs to belt Buzz in the face with his mask. It took 12 stitches to sew up the gash, and he was sidelined for two weeks, long enough for Brooklyn to sign someone else.
Chadbourne was fired, while Arlett threatened to sue the league for $10,000. Speculation was that Arlett agreed to drop the lawsuit when the price tag on his flesh was dropped to $15,000 and he was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. The Oaks also sold stars Ernie Lombardi and Johnny Vergez that winter. In 1930, the Phillies had finished last in the National League with a dreadful 52-102 record because of helpless pitching. They traded Lefty O’Doul, a terrific hitter but an indifferent fielder, to the Robins for two pitchers and replaced him with Arlett, another terrific hitter with a reputation as an indifferent fielder.
Phillies fans witnessed one of the most impressive sights in baseball in 1931: hulking Buzz Arlett, 6-foot 3 and 230-plus pounds, wielding the heaviest bat in the majors, a 44-ounce Louisville Slugger. Brooklyn writer Tommy Holmes provided this description:
“A heavy, handsome head, crowned by a shock of brown curly hair, is perched on a thick neck, which in turn rests on a pair of shoulders proportionately thick and broad. His arms are long and muscular, ending in strong, well-formed, capable-looking hands. His legs are fitting pillars to uphold the bulk of his Gargantuan torso.”
In January of 1931, the Philadelphia Phillies bought Arlett’s contract from the Oakland Oaks. During what would be his only year in the majors, and using the heaviest bat of any player, Buzz earned a .313 batting average and hit 18 home runs — fourth in the National League.
Arlett singled and doubled in his first two major league at-bats, and homered the next day. After batting .315 in April, he caught fire in May and showed National League fans what their PCL counterparts had witnessed for so many years. He banged out a dozen hits in a four-game series at Ebbets Field, slugged a pair of home runs in a game at Baker Bowl, and piled up eight multi-hit games in a nine-game span. At the end of May, he led the major leagues with 10 home runs and 38 RBI and was batting .375.
“A National League fastball is the same as a Coast League fastball, and a curve is a curve in Brooklyn or in California,” he told Holmes. “The only pitcher who stood out happened to be the highest-paid hurler in the league. Only one pitcher up here has shown me something I’d never seen before, and that is Dazzy Vance. He has a fastball that’s in a class by itself and a curve that breaks faster and dips further than any pitcher I’ve ever encountered.”
Arlett slowed down in June, when a hand injury sidelined him for the second half of the month. He returned July 1 with a .343 average, batting cleanup in a lineup that included five .300 hitters and hitting behind Chuck Klein, who led the National League in home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage in 1931. But the hand continued to hamper him.
Buzz and the team struggled through the heart of the summer. The Phillies went 10-22, and Arlett’s batting average dropped to .324. By this point, he was considered a liability in the field, as described in the oft-quoted verse of Philadelphia writer George Edward Phair:
Buzz Arlett weighs half a ton.
He cannot field; he cannot run.
But when he wields his trust wood.
The pellet leaves the neighborhood.
By mid-August, he lost his job in right field and was playing some first base — as he had right after returning from his injury — and pinch-hitting more often in the final weeks of the season. The last straw in right field apparently occurred Aug. 12, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cubs. In the ninth inning, he misplayed two base hits, allowing runners to advance and boosting bringing his error total to 10 for the season. But the Phillies already trailed, 11-1, so those muffs hurt his status more than the team’s.
Starting just six games after Aug. 17, Arlett saw his final average drop to .313 with 18 home runs, 72 RBI, and a solid OPS of .925. On the sixth-place Phillies — still doomed by the worst pitching in the league — he was second to Klein in home runs, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage, third in batting average and fourth in RBI despite missing 34 games.
But he was not invited back. Placed on waivers, he went unclaimed. The Phillies moved Klein back to right field, and he was joined in the outfield by Hal Lee and Kiddo Davis. All three put up big numbers on offense while leading their respective positions in errors. Buzz Arlett could have done that!
Instead, he went back to the minor leagues for five more seasons. He became more of a pure slugger, unleashing his frustration first in 1932 with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League. On June 2, he belted four home runs in one game, and on the Fourth of July, he duplicated that feat before adding another home run in the second game. His 54 homers for the season set an International League record, and he also led the league with 144 RBI, 112 walks, 141 runs, and 378 total bases while batting .339. Yet he remained buried in the minors, his second-rate status unchanged by rumors that he would be traded to Brooklyn.
Playing for the Orioles of the International League in 1932, Arlett twice hit four home runs in a single game.
It was more of the same with the Orioles in 1933: a .343 average, 39 home runs, 146 RBI, and 135 runs. He began 1934 with Birmingham of the Southern Association but after 35 games was dealt to Minneapolis of the American Association, hitting a combined 48 home runs and driving in 155 runs.
That winter he turned 36, but it didn’t stop him from winning the American Association batting title in 1935 with a .360 average and 25 home runs. His average fell all the way to .316 in 1936, and after a few at-bats in 1937, he was done.
The carnage he left behind is told by the career numbers. His batting average was .341, one point lower than Ruth’s. He had 2,726 hits, including 598 doubles, 107 triples, and 432 home runs. He drove in 1,786 runs, stole 200 bases, and scored 1,610 runs. Add in his year with the Phillies, and he racked up 2,857 hits, 450 home runs, and 1,858 RBI. His PCL records of 251 home runs and 1,188 RBI will never be approached.
Think how huge his numbers would have been without the four-year fling with the spitball that kept him from being an everyday player until he was 24. Better yet, think what his major league career would have been like if the designated hitter had existed in the 1920s.
Buzz Arlett wasn’t quite done with baseball. After retirement, he operated a restaurant and bar in Minneapolis and occasionally suited up for the company team. In 1945, he was inducted into the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame. A year later, he was honored in Oakland as “the Mightiest Oak of All Time.” The final honor came with the SABR declaration of him as the “All-Time Greatest Minor League Player,” awarded 20 years after his death in 1964.
Often called “The Babe Ruth of the Minors” because of his impressive size and statistics, Buzz Arlett is considered by many to be the greatest minor league player of all time.